Marking nearly 50 years since the conclusion of the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, Israel’s armed forces have declassified documents, audio recordings and photos pertaining to Operation Focus, which aimed at wiping out Egypt’s air force on the ground on the first day of the six-day conflict. Known in Egypt as al-naksa (“the setback”), the war resulted in the occupation of the Sinai Peninsula, Syria’s Golan Heights, along with the Palestinian West Bank and Gaza Strip.
On Sunday, the Israeli Defense Ministry declassified military documents and two-way radio recordings from the first waves of its preemptive air-raids, which destroyed airports and radar installations along with over 450 military aircraft in Egypt, Syria and Jordan. The recordings reveal the highly secretive nature of these sorties, which caught the Arab world by surprise.
It is reported that prior to the outbreak of this third Arab-Israeli war, the Israeli Air Force (IAF) had 412 aircraft in its service, including 203 bomber and fighter jets, along with 235 pilots. Egypt, Syria, and Jordan — along with Iraq, to a lesser extent — boasted a total of 826 military aircraft, and 980 pilots at their disposal.
Israel reports losing 46 aircraft during the war, along with the deaths of 24 of its pilots (at least one of whom was mistakenly killed by friendly fire), the capture of seven others, and the injury of 11.
Military historians point out that over 250 Egyptian warplanes were either destroyed or disabled on June 5, 1967, while approximately 100 of the country’s trained air force pilots (from around 350) had been killed. Additionally, most military airports, airstrips, radar sites and anti-aircraft missile sites were disabled.
According to Israeli media outlets, Operation Focus — the opening aerial battle — had the objective of “paralyzing enemy air forces by targeting their runways and destroying as many aircraft as possible on the ground” on runways before they could takeoff or engage in combat. The preemptive Israeli operation called for “continuous sorties by the attacking aircraft.” Israel’s first attack was launched at 7:45 am (8:45 am Egyptian time) on June 5, amid complete radio silence.
The declassified Israeli documents include testimonies from then-IAF commander, Major General Mordechai “Motti” Hod, which reveal that the focus of the opening stages of the 1967 War were aimed at eliminating Egypt’s air defenses.
“I presented a plan that called for simultaneous strikes, but with a particular emphasis on the Egyptian Air Force,” explained Hod.
Israeli outlets reported that there were a total of 183 sorties, of which 173 targeted airports and runways, while the remainder were geared toward espionage, photography and surveillance.
The previously classified information revealed that Israel’s first wave of air strikes in the Six-Day War took place over the Sinai Peninsula, and lasted for 101 minutes.
What remained Egypt’s air force was scrambled into action following the first wave of surprise attacks. The second wave of sorties lasted 104 minutes, during which 14 (out of 18) airfields were targeted, including some which had been attacked in the first wave.
A third and fourth wave of Israeli airstrikes were launched on June 5, with the IAF gradually shifting its attention toward the air defenses of Syria and Jordan, after having first struck Egypt. Subsequent air strikes, which were significantly smaller, took place during the next few days.
The IAF commander added that he was not too concerned regarding confrontation with Syria’s air force.
“I wanted to make sure we inflicted maximum damage to the Egyptian Air Force, using our maximum firepower. I did not take the Syrian air force as a serious threat. Yes, it was a nuisance, but not a serious one,” Hod said in recorded testimonies.
According to declassified documents quoting Hod, “Since things proceeded smoothly on the Egyptian front, implementing this decision was made easier, to the point that some of the aircraft that had been sent on a sortie to bomb Egypt were diverted to Syria.”
The declassified air force recordings reveal the state of disarray and unpreparedness among the ranks the Egyptian and Syrian armed forces. “I knew that there is no coordinated war between Egypt and Syria,” Hod explained.
At the time of the 1967 War, much of Israel’s air force consisted of technologically advanced French military aircraft, while most of Egypt’s air force (and those of the other Arab states involved) were made up of Soviet military aircraft.
During the course of the war, Egypt’s military-issued propaganda claimed that it was winning decisive victories over Israel, and had brought down scores of enemy aircraft. It was only at its conclusion that the Egyptian populace was made aware of the crushing military defeat, the virtual annihiliation of its air force and Israel’s complete occupation of the Sinai Peninsula.
According to the accounts of several military historians, Egypt’s military defeat in the 1967 War was largely attributed to the flight of the defense minister and commander of the Egyptian air force aboard a Soviet plane at the time of the commencement of Israel’s Operation Focus. Egypt’s air defences were reportedly ordered not to fire while the plane was in flight.
Israel claims it was pushed into launching preemptive military attacks on Egypt in light of Cairo’s closure of the Straits of Tiran (at the mouth of the Red Sea) to Israeli navigation.
Quoting Israel’s Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper, however, Egypt’s privately-owned Sada al-Balad news portal reported that “Tel Aviv had planned to strike Egyptian airports since 1962.”
Following Egypt’s military humiliation and occupation in the 1967 War, the country launched the War of Attrition from 1967-70 in hopes of liberating the Sinai Peninsula. This was followed by the 1973 War, in which Egypt fought a coordinated armed campaign to liberate Sinai, while Syria fought to reclaim the Golan Heights.